Berlusconi and Italy’s Decline

Perry Anderson in the LRB:

Berlusconi, catapulted onto the political stage as Craxi fled into exile, thus embodies perhaps the deepest irony in the postwar history of any Western society. The First Republic collapsed amid public outrage at the exposure of stratospheric levels of political corruption, only to give birth to a Second Republic dominated by a yet more flamboyant monument of illegality and corruption, Craxi’s own misdeeds dwarfed by comparison. Nor was the new venality confined to the ruler and his entourage. Beneath them, corruption has continued to flourish undiminished. A few months after the centre-left governor of Campania, Antonio Bassolino – formerly of the PCI – was indicted for fraud and malversation, the governor of Abruzzo, Ottavio Del Turco, another stalwart of the centre-left – formerly of the PSI – was also arrested, after a private-health tycoon confessed to having paid him six million euros in cash as protection money. Berlusconi is the capstone of a system that extends well beyond him. But, as a political actor, credit for the inversion of what was imagined would be the curing of the ills of the First Republic by the Second belongs in the first place to him. Italy has no more native tradition than trasformismo – the transformation of a political force by osmosis into its opposite, as classically practised by Depretis in the late 19th century, absorbing the right into the official left, and Giolitti in the early 20th, co-opting labour reformism to the benefit of liberalism. The case of the Second Republic has been trasformismo on a grander scale: not a party, or a class, but an entire order converted into what it was intended to end.
Where the state has led, society has followed. The years since 1993 have, in one area of life after another, been the most calamitous since the fall of Fascism. Of late, they have produced probably the two most scalding inventories of avarice, injustice, dereliction and failure to appear in any European country since the war. The works of a pair of crusading journalists for Corriere della Sera, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo, La Casta and La Deriva, have both been bestsellers – the first ran through 23 editions in six months – and they deserve to be. What do they reveal? To begin with, the greed of the political class running the country.
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